This week’s post was written by Lauren Linville, HEFN’s Communications Associate. Lauren joined the HEFN staff in July 2012. Prior to that, she worked for a California-based communications firm and served as a Corporate and Foundations Relations Coordinator with the Brookings Institution.
Last fall, I made a major lifestyle change. I sold my car. As a suburban-raised youth and former resident of Los Angeles County, I had spent the bulk of my life in the car. I had suspected the benefits of going carless would be great (and they are), but I was still reserved. ‘What if’ scenarios of being unable to visit metro-inaccessible family and clumsily navigating busy streets delayed my decision. That was until I did some research, made a plan and took the leap.
I’ve noticed a similar hesitation around social media in philanthropy. This could be in part because some are uncertain how a Twitter or Facebook account could benefit their work, or perhaps because of cultural and generational differences. Transparency and rapid responsiveness, two hallmarks of social networking, are not qualities traditionally associated with philanthropy. Adding to that, the majority of funders are over the age of 50, a demographic newer to social media.
However, there are signs that funders are warming up to social media. A 2012 Fenton Communications survey found:
- Fifty-three percent of foundation officials respondents say they’ve tried social media with some success.
- Foundations are using sites to share news, stay connected and support grantee work.
- Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are the most commonly used platforms.
- Program Officers lead in social media usage over Chief Executive Officers and Chief Operating Officers.
Additionally, a 2010 Foundation Center survey of foundation leaders reports 73% of those surveyed think social networking tools have been at least somewhat useful to expand philanthropic work.
Overall, philanthropy seems receptive, but cautious.
HEFN shared this feeling not too long ago. Before launching our social media pages and blog, we worried whether social media would be worth the staff time, who we could really reach, and how time diverted to social media efforts would affect our service to funders who aren’t using social media.
To find out, we begin doing research and building a plan.
We started by researching what others had done. We looked to funders and affinity group friends to see what they were saying and how they were engaging with their networks. We wanted to find out where conversations relevant to our issues were happening. We also explored how we could support funders who wanted to use social media to support grantees, many of which are ahead of foundations in adoption of social media tools. Listening to what others were saying, and where they were saying it, gave us a lot of insight into how social media could help us meet our goals.
We’re pleased with what we’ve learned and seen on social media so far. On Facebook, we’re hearing more frequently about our colleagues’ work and interests. Twitter has helped us find and connect with funder affinity groups in new places.
This blog has been growing into a useful tool for sharing insights into grantmaking in HEFN’s issue areas and for bringing new funders to HEFN. It is giving our members a new vehicle to share their perspectives. A staff blog post last November got circulated on another affinity group list, prompting a new funder inquiry about HEFN membership. We think social media tools will complement and improve HEFN’s work to develop funder leadership, strengthen affinity group relationships and reach farther into philanthropy.
So now what?
In 2013, we’re planning to expand and deepen investment in environmental health and justice by helping more people access the abundant information and interaction opportunities social media offers. We’ve already seen that by incorporating Twitter into HEFN’s Annual Meeting last year, we helped spark more interest in social networking among funders. HEFN’s Monthly Media Digests, which offer a snippet of the conversations we’re tuned into on social media, are another way we’re introducing social networking to more funders.
Over the next few months, we’ll be launching new tools on using social media in philanthropy, including:
- An introductory webinar to social media with tips about how funders can integrate social media into their workday;
- Q&A blog posts to help answer funders’ social networking quandaries; and
- Customized lists of social media accounts and bogs to follow on issues areas.
Our adventure into social media is just starting. There’s no doubt our plan will be tweaked and changed to keep up with evolving technology and trends. For those that have made the leap, we’d love to hear how you’ve used social networking in your grantmaking. And for fellow neophytes, we look forward to sharing our stories and helping you along the way.
For HEFN, expanding philanthropic support for environmental health and justice work is a top priority, if not an active obsession. We are proud of having helped grow our funder community’s annual investments from just a few million to over a hundred million dollars of support for the field, and we intend to expand foundation investments and impact much further.
But we and our members also have started talking about what funders can do to lessen the field’s dependence on philanthropy. At HEFN’s recent 2012 annual meeting in Chicago, discussions surfaced varied motives and ideas for finding resources beyond the known universe.
Broadening the base: Although funding in this arena has grown, work and opportunities in the field have grown even faster. And both funders and grantees worry about how many organizations are dependent on too few foundations. This not only constrains growth. It also can make good work quite vulnerable when foundations change, whether to shift priorities, exit a field, or make recession-related reductions in grantmaking. Some funders already have been making grants to help groups expand operations and/or lessen dependence on grant revenue. For example, as it moved towards a planned spend-out, the Beldon Fund gave a challenge grant to a grantee to build its individual donor base. The group used those resources to expand its annual donor revenue from $50,000 to over one million dollars, mainly through online donations.
Putting expertise to work: Funders also are realizing that some organizations they’ve supported have acquired information and expertise that has value beyond advocacy. So, for instance, we are hearing about groups that have advanced understanding about how environmental exposures affect health, and groups developing tools to evaluate chemicals and materials for safety, that now are exploring trainings or other fees-for-service that could generate a new revenue stream.
Investing for impact: Along similar lines we hear increasing interest, albeit little experience yet, in steering more funder and donor resources into mission-related or impact investment in areas like green chemistry, renewable energy, healthy housing, and hazard remediation.
Engaging social networks: As people talked at the HEFN 2012 meeting about building broader public broad public support for healthier environmental conditions, conversations turned to opportunities for online fundraising and crowd-funding. Here too, grants to build online fundraising capacity might broaden and diversify the field’s resources. Having watched so many funders get more committed to this field as they make and learn from investments, I also think the benefits of drawing more people into everyday “philanthropy” to protect public health and the environment could go way beyond new revenue generation.
These initial discussions raise new questions: Are some new revenue options most appropriate for certain kinds of grantees? Any resources funders and nonprofit groups have found particularly helpful? Where could past experience or successes in other arenas provide useful models or lessons learned? For instance, could platforms like Kickstarter or Kiva work for domestic environmental health and justice projects?
We’re interested in learning more – and helping HEFN funders explore new ways for grantees to expand their resources outside the known philanthropic universe.In a nod to this post’s title and a reminder to think about the universe’s expansive possibilities, please enjoy these breathtaking images from NASA’s Image gallery: